Ready. Set. Google won.
Or so they say. For a few hours, Google made public the news that they were the first to achieve quantum supremacy with a landmark paper on a NASA website. We don't really know. A few hours later, it was taken down. Was the news too much? Was it too soon? Was it true? If so, how will it impact cryptography? The internet has been ablaze with theories and conjectures, and we’re not ones to miss out. We assembled some of the best comments and opinions that answer the questions we’re asking, the ones we aren’t asking, and the ones we should be asking. There may be no definitive answer on what Google’s (shh) announcement really means, but that isn’t going to keep us from thinking about the possible implications —or anyone else, either.
What’s the situation?
“A new generation of devices under development by companies such as Microsoft, Google and IBM, [will] multiply the computing capabilities of computers, and will probably make obsolete the encryption systems currently in use, based on the transmission of radio waves.” -EET Asia, M. Di Paolo Emilio
In a nutshell: “Quantum Cryptography is an alternative to the use of Public Key protocols, such as RSA, to generate and exchange secret keys.” -EET Asia, M. Di Paolo Emilio
“As far back as 2015, the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST) began asking encryption experts to submit their candidate algorithms for testing against quantum computing’s expected capabilities... It will take years for a consensus to coalesce around the most suitable algorithms.” - Forbes, Bill Holtz
And then, as a surprise to—everyone—the Financial times broke the news that sitting quietly on the NASA Technical Reports Server (NTRS) was proof that someone had done it—Google's paper laid claim to quantum supremacy.
Now we all figure out exactly what that means
In layman’s terms, quantum supremacy defines as the ability of a quantum machine to solve problems that a regular computer can’t because the math would take impractically long.
In other words, according to the redacted report, “Google’s quantum computer was able to accomplish in three minutes what the world’s fastest computer would take 10,000 years to do.” - CSO Online, Roger A. Grimes
"[T]o our knowledge, this experiment marks the first computation that can only be performed on a quantum processor.” SpaceRef, Google document transcript, Eleanor G. Rieffel
How did they do it?
”They did it by means of “a quantum processor called Sycamore that contains 54 superconducting quantum bits, or qubits,” according to NewScientist. Reportedly, only 53 were working that day.
The paper calculates the task would have taken Summit, the world’s best supercomputer, 10,000 years – but Sycamore did it in 3 minutes and 20 seconds.” - NewScientist, Chelsea Whyte
We can all agree; that’s pretty fast.
How does quantum cryptography work?
“Current systems of Quantum Cryptography rely on encoding a computer bit in a property of a single photon, which is the fundamental constituent of light and electromagnetic radiation.
[T]wo major global directions have been pursued: a post-quantum cryptography approach and another hardware-based approach called quantum cryptography...
Post-quantum cryptography is essentially about updating existing algorithms and cryptographic standards.
Quantum cryptography entails quantum key distribution (QKD) which ‘makes it possible to transmit a secret key from one user to another, reaching the condition of perfect secrecy from a mathematical point of view, and therefore making any interception attempts useless.’” - EET Asia
What are people saying about Google’s quantum supremacy?
“If true, it is big news.” - NewScientist
“Congratulations! You’re lucky to be alive during what could be the most important advance in the history of computing: the advent of quantum supremacy.
This milestone is the moment when a quantum computer finally does something that a traditional, binary, classical computer cannot...” - CSO Online
“Google accidentally made computer science history last week.” - WIRED
“Quantum computing is poised to change the world of IT.” - FORBES
Why worry? [RSA and ECC]
What does this mean for those of you protecting an enterprise PKI? How will this leap in quantum computing affect you.
“Due to a smart piece of mathematics from the 1990s called Shor’s algorithm, the quantum computing architecture should turn out to be much more effective than traditional computing architecture at defeating Rivest–Shamir–Adleman (RSA) and elliptic-curve cryptography (ECC)-based encryption, today’s most common encryption types.” - Forbes, Bill Holtz
“Quantum computers, using qubits, will theoretically be able to perform the calculations necessary to break our current encryptions standards in under a day. When that happens, all of our encrypted data will be vulnerable. That means our businesses, communications channels, and banking and national security systems may be accessible.” - Entrepreneurial, pro-tech presidential candidate Andrew Yang
“NIST has long declared that the standard RSA encryption is ‘No longer safe’ and has been working diligently with its community to establish a standard for encryption that would be resistant to quantum...” - Max Artemenko, BCI Summit Founder
How can you protect your PKI from the possibilities of quantum computing? CRYPTO4A and Venafi are pioneering a solve.
Did Google really achieve the quantum supremacy that will put current encryption out of business?
“Is Google now supreme? Not as we know it, at least not yet.” - Max Artemenko, BCI Summit founder
“….even Google’s own paper, caution[s] that the result doesn’t mean quantum computers are ready for practical work.” - WIRED
“This demonstration is a proof of concept, but it isn’t free of errors within the processor.” - New Scientist
“The notion of Google achieving a quantum breakthrough sounds very dramatic, but in reality, it’s hard to gauge the significance at this time. How can we be sure that Google’s quantum computer is more powerful than D-wave’s, for example, which surpassed 1,000 qubits four years ago?” - Johann Polecsak, CTO of quantum-resistant blockchain QAN
What’s the hitch?
"Quantum computers are not ‘supreme’ against classical computers because of a laboratory experiment designed to essentially (and almost certainly exclusively) implement one very specific quantum sampling procedure with no practical applications,” IBM's Dario Gil tells the Financial Times.
“The problem their machine solves with astounding speed has been very carefully chosen just for the purpose of demonstrating the quantum computer’s superiority,” says John Preskill, the Caltech professor who came up with the term "quantum supremacy” in 2011.
In other words, Sycamore was built for this problem, but can it handle a real-world application?
“Quantum computers will not mean the end of traditional computers”
Even when machines like Sycamore do scale, according to some “[q]uantum computers will not mean the end of traditional computers. We should expect both architectures to live side by side.” - Forbes
Still, Google’s premature proof-of-concept only adds urgency to the issue. Quantum computing just became a reality that will be felt across wide angles. While not today, this path leads to the processing power that will eventually threaten RSA and ECC, and it behooves forward-thinking companies to take note.
“If the industry does not adapt, it risks leaving the door open to widespread compromise.” - Forbes
What did Google really do?
Nothing small. They revealed news that, if true, could signal the end of an epoch in human technological advancement. At its fullest, quantum cryptography mobilizes everything from state secrets to social media algorithms, bitcoin to pharma to finance. The devil, of course, rests in the details, but we can all agree that Google has cracked a key barrier that stood between science fiction and science fact. Just like when Roger Banister broke the 4-minute mile in 1954, this is something that needed to be achieved to be believed.
Now that Google has our attention, we can be sure that a lot of other entities will follow suit—and likely a lot sooner than the projected 10 years. We may not quite have achieved the equivalent of putting a man on the moon, but we’ve definitely sent a satellite into orbit, and for better or worse—it's out there for the whole world to see.